The first doctor to treat a patient with the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 wants to set the record straight: There is nothing thus far about the new variant that warrants the “extreme action” many governments are taking in reaction to the variant’s discovery.
In an opinion-editorial published broadly, including at the Daily Mail, she issues a scathing reprimand on the media hysteria and political opportunism that has been the dominant reaction to the news.
“As chair of the South African Medical Association and a GP of 33 years’ standing, I have seen a lot over my medical career,” Dr. Angelique Coetzee said. “But nothing has prepared me for the extraordinary global reaction that met my announcement this week that I had seen a young man in my surgery who had a case of Covid that turned out to be the Omicron variant.”
“This version of the virus had been circulating in southern Africa for some time, having been previously identified in Botswana,” she added. “But given my public-facing role, by announcing its presence in my own patient, I unwittingly brought it to global attention.”
“Quite simply, I have been stunned at the response – and especially from Britain,” she said.
“And let me be clear: nothing I have seen about this new variant warrants the extreme action the UK government has taken in response to it,” Dr. Coetzee added.
Then she preceded to lay out the known facts about the Omicron variant so far.
“No one here in South Africa is known to have been hospitalised with the Omicron variant, nor is anyone here believed to have fallen seriously ill with it,” she said.
“Yet Britain and other European nations have reacted with heavy travel restrictions on flights from across southern Africa, as well as imposing tighter rules at home on mask-wearing, fines and extended quarantines,” she went on.
“In South Africa, we’ve retained a sense of perspective,” she continued. “We’ve had no new regulations or talk of lockdowns because we’re waiting to see what the variant actually means.”
“We’ve also become accustomed here to new Covid variants emerging,” she added. “So when our scientists confirmed the discovery of yet another, nobody made a huge thing of it. Many people didn’t even notice.”
“But after Britain heard about it, the global picture started to change,” Dr. Coetzee pointed out.
“Even as our scientists tried to point out the huge gaps in the world’s knowledge about this variant, European nations immediately and unilaterally banned travel from this part of the world,” she said.
“Our government was understandably angered by this, pointing out that ‘Excellent science should be applauded, not punished,’” she said.
Then, Dr. Coetzee urged the international medical community to do something it hasn’t done for the last two years: Take a level-headed approach.
“If, as some evidence suggests, Omicron turns out to be a fast-spreading virus with mostly mild symptoms for the majority of the people who catch it, that would be a useful step on the road to herd immunity,” she argued. “We’ll learn in the next two weeks if that’s the case.”
“The worst situation – of course – would be a fast-spreading virus with severe infections,” she continued. “But that’s not where we are at the moment.”
“Here in South Africa, what I and my GP colleagues are seeing doesn’t in any way warrant the knee-jerk reaction we’ve seen from the UK,” she noted. “For one thing, we’re not – at least for now – treating patients who are severely ill.”
The first known case of a patient with the Omicron variant in the United States was reported on Wednesday. That patient was said to have been from South Africa and had traveled to California.
Canada on Tuesday banned the unvaccinated over age 12 from traveling on any form of public transportation, including trains and airplanes. The ban was planned for over a month, but authorities pointed to the Omicron variant as yet another public health reason for the vaccine mandate for domestic travel.
The government of Botswana’s Covid-19 Task Force earlier stated that the first four known transmitters of the Omicron variant were all “fully vaccinated.”
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OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion.